Microbeads: ahead of the ban

21 February 2017

By Katherine Rich

Comprehensive sustainability policies are now the standard across the operations of responsible companies, with those in the New Zealand food and grocery sector leading the way.

Most members of the Food and Grocery Council have demonstrable and publicly stated policies around such things as water use and conservation, sensible and renewable energy use, biodegradable and/or recyclable packaging, and using ingredients from sustainable sources. It’s all about being responsible citizens and guardians of the environment.

Such sustainability was a recurring theme in a series of video interviews that FGC conducted with company leaders during 2016, and which are available on our website.

No surprises, then, that when the Government launched a discussion paper in January proposing to ban the use of plastic microbeads in personal-care products by 2018 there was not a murmur from our part of the industry. Because our member companies have either largely already eliminated the beads from their products or are in the process of doing so.

Plastic microbeads are particles of plastic between 1mm and 5mm in size that are used as an exfoliation ingredient in some personal-care products. They can be spherical or irregular in shape and are produced in a multitude of colours. They have been around for several decades, being patented in the 1970’s, but have come into common use only in recent years.

In the past they have been used in hundreds of products, from deodorant, shampoo, hair conditioner, shower gel, lipstick, hair colouring, shaving cream, sunscreen, insect repellent, and anti-wrinkle cream, to moisturisers, hair spray, facial masks, baby care products, eyeshadow and mascara. All microbeads in New Zealand products were imported.

The problem is that they are too small to retrieve or recycle, are not biodegradable, and could be mistaken by marine life as food, potentially causing long-term damage to fish and mussels.

Many consumers made it clear they didn’t want microbeads in their products, and FMCG companies heard this feedback and started removing them from products as early as 2014. A survey undertaken last year by FGC of both its members and others in the wider industry revealed that many are now not using them or are well down the track of their reformulation. Supermarket brands containing microbeads have largely gone already. I couldn’t find any when I checked my local supermarket’s shelves.

FGC now has no members who both manufacture and sell products with microbeads. Our members include GSK, L’Oreal (including Body Shop, Biotherm) Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, Beiersdorf (Nivea), Blackmores and Unilever.

The reason the beads have not been removed instantly is that reformulation is often complex, and companies wanted to find substitutes that still gave consumers a product that did the same job. Biodegradable alternatives are available and are already being used in some brands.  They include apricot kernels, ground nuts and shell, salt, charcoal, sand, sugar, pumice and oatmeal.

While FGC members have done the right thing, it’s disappointing that some products with plastic microbeads remain available online. It will be up to consumers to play their part and stop purchasing them.

FGC supports the Government’s proposal for the ban to take effect on 1 July next year, which will beat the US target of 2019. But I anticipate moves by the industry will beat both of those targets.

(Originally published in Supermarket News, February 2017)